Turning divorce into a ‘soul holiday’ – Times of Malta

Sharon Cusens and her daughter Elisa, author and illustrator respectively.

“So, mum and dad split up. And now? What’s going to happen?” Rising from the ashes of the trauma of divorce, Sharon Cusens tells Adriana Bishop how she designed an “emotional navigation system” to guide her children towards a new life with a positive attitude. She is now crowdfunding to publish this story in a series of three books.

When Sharon Cusens broke the news to her children that she and their father were getting divorced, she came prepared with a suitcase. But she wasn’t heading for an airport. She wasn’t going anywhere at all, at least not in a literal sense. The suitcase symbolised the start of a new journey for the family, a new life, a new destination; they were going on a “soul holiday”.

A psychology graduate and change management consultant, Sharon drew on her expertise to provide her children with some kind of a “soft landing” as she prepared to break the devastating news to them.

“We had been married for 16 years. We were a traditional, conservative family, with strong family values. I did everything to save my marriage. However, when it was inevitable that divorce was the next step, I spent a lot of time thinking how I was going to tell the children,” explains Sharon. “Instead of it being a crash landing, I tried to find a soft landing. I wrote a story for my children to empower them to go on a new ‘voyage’.” 

Sharon and her now ex-husband took their three children, then aged nine, 12 and 13 years old, to dinner in a private room of a restaurant, a neutral location, to break the news. 

“They knew it was coming. I had prepared them in advance that we had something important to tell them. They cried. After they had stopped crying, I asked them what was important for them. We listened to what they each had to say and empathised with them and promised to focus on giving them what they needed. Then I took out a small suitcase that I had brought with me. I shifted immediately into ‘entertainment’ mode and I read out my story to them.

“I wanted to empower them with the idea of a journey where their soul could be
on holiday. The destination of ‘family’ was no longer there, and it was not their fault. What happened between mum and dad was not the children’s fault, but we are now going on a ‘soul holiday’.

“I asked them to think of what we would need to bring with us on holiday in our soul. Instead of looking at the situation negatively, I took them on this soul holiday, to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, even if we go through darkness.”

Sharon’s story provided her children with an “emotional navigation system” to work through all the negative emotions of the trauma, shifting from anxiety and instability to hope and courage, and it managed to bring a smile to their face.

After listening to the story, the children were encouraged to express their emotions through art and so began the family’s healing journey – a journey that later evolved into a three-book project co-created with her children for children and parents, which Sharon is now planning to publish.

“My idea was to empower the children so that they are not victims but inspirational leaders. We need to stop being victims. Divorce is an issue that we need to talk about. If it hits you, you must realise you only have one life. Let it redefine you and get up.

“I found my strength from forgetting about myself and focusing on the children’s needs. I was in a traumatic state of mind. But what surprised me was that the more I stopped focusing on my issues of pride, sorrow, loss and change in my circumstances, the more I helped my children and, as a consequence, the more powerful I became.

“What gave me that power was helping my children. I got to know them more through this trauma and they got to know more about themselves and about me. It became a beautiful dynamic. We inspired each other.”

The original story that Sharon first wrote for her children is now featured in book one of the series entitled A Universal Language, and is illustrated by Sharon’s youngest daughter Elisa, together with two other child-artists Angie and Luke Bonett.

Written in a format that is easily accessible to children, the story deals with the whirlwind of emotions experienced in such a situation with hard-hitting honesty.

Instead of focusing on feelings of darkness, sadness, emptiness and confusion, the focus is shifted onto that metaphoric suitcase, which is filled with hope, strength, support, understanding, clarity, courage, peace, harmony, love, warmth, stability and security to see the children, and their parents, through this new journey of healing.

Elisa interpreted her mother’s story by creating the character of Rosie, a bird with rainbow-coloured wings, a free spirit, who wants to break out of the bad weather, a symbolic reference to the sadness, hate, bitterness, revenge, emptiness, anger and turbulence that the children were experiencing.

Rosie decides to go on a holiday and packs two suitcases, one labelled anger and the other freedom. She takes off and eventually realises that in order to leave the bad situations behind, she has to let go of the anger suitcase.

“When our parents told us they were getting divorced, it was a painful day for me. My world fell apart,” says Elisa, now 14. “On the day, the story didn’t really have an effect because I was sad that my parents were going to divorce, but then my mum read me the story again and again on other days and, together with my brother and sister, I could start contemplating it. What really did it was when I started drawing about it.

“I am not sure what inspired me to come up with Rosie,” admits Elisa. “After mum read us the story, I just had this picture in my head and put it down on paper. It helped me and I think we can help people through this book. A friend of mine, who lost her father, knows about the book. I gave it to her, and it helped her.” 

The book’s lessons can apply to any trauma situation.

Sharon explains that the book can be perceived as a “teacher’s book”, while the way the children reacted and expressed themselves through their art showed the “students applying the story”.

While it was her divorce that inspired her to write this story, Sharon points out that the teachings from this book series can be applied to any situation of trauma or loss.

“This story is not meant just for people dealing with divorce. It empowers you to get up with fresh thoughts on how to move forward in whatever trauma you happen to be going through. It offers a winner’s mindset; the idea that you don’t need anything from the external world; rather you find the strength within you and in nature by tuning in to your core. This is the language of the soul.”

The book provides a “tool box” for people to deal with the trauma by focusing primarily on securing their children’s happiness first, but it also works both ways.

“While they are busy helping their children, parents forget themselves and they will come out of their ashes without even knowing it. This is a tool for children to also help their parents and when they see a happy mum [or dad], then they heal as well.”

At the same time, the book aims to raise awareness about children’s rights and needs during a divorce. “Parents going through a divorce tend to get lost in the legal worlds, butchering each other, and do not focus on the emotional needs of the children in such a traumatic situation. They need to separate the personal differences between man and woman and focus on the responsibilities they have as mummy and daddy,” continues Sharon.

The three-book series features a total of 10 short stories. The first book contains only the original one Sharon wrote for her children on that fateful day. Story number 8 was written by Elisa. The second book of the series, The Government in My Head, features 11 cartoon characters humorously illustrating our psyche, acting as a mirror or self-reflecting tool for us to deal with our inner conflicts and understand our environment better.

The book will be co-produced with homeless people residing at the YMCA shelter and will include drawings made by them, illustrating how they intend to turn their lives around. Sharon explains how the aim of the second book is to turn the homeless into inspirational leaders rather than remain victims. As co-creators, they will also become freelance entrepreneurs.

Book three is expected to be co-published with persons with special needs. The books are complemented by a coaching documentary, filmed and directed by Sharon herself called Love Will Find a Way. The film is intended to help people overcome the initial stages of divorce and all the firsts that come in the new life: the first Christmas, the first holiday, separation, moving out, the pain and how to pick yourself up from the ashes.

“I call it ‘film therapy’. I started making the film with no budget at all. As I told people about the idea, I started filming them. It was therapeutic for me. After three years of collecting small clips, I had 35 people helping me and contributing to it. Then I found a way to put it together into a professional film and turned it into an 80-minute coaching documentary,” explains Sharon.

Through her company, Spring Productions International, Sharon also runs coaching programmes offering empowerment, mental resilience and better self-management skills.

The entire project has already received a grant from the EU for “new and improved approaches to mental and emotional health and wellbeing”. But now, Sharon is seeking additional funds to publish the books. A crowdfunding campaign kicked off earlier this month on the Zaar platform to raise €3,000 and will run until just before Easter.

A clinical perspective

There have been on average over 300 divorces every year in Malta since the law was introduced in 2011. Clinical psychologist and family therapist Prof. Angela Abela points out that parental separation doubles the chance of serious problems in children.

“In the normal population, 10 per cent have serious problems; this goes up to 20-25 per cent with children from divorced families. Of course, one must keep in mind that 75 to 80 per cent have no serious difficulty. For many of the children affected, problems dissipate in between one and two years.

“Children of divorced parents are also more likely to engage in negative exchanges with their spouses when they grow up. Those who marry someone who is supportive can eliminate such a risk,” explains Prof. Abela.

She adds that parents need to present a united front when breaking the news. “Children get very stressed when they are made to side with one parent against another. Furthermore, they need to explain to them that although they as parents are separating, they still love the children very much and will always be there for them.

“Parents need to help children express their feelings after the news is broken. They need to empathise with their children’s feelings,” Prof. Abela continues.

“On the other hand, it is important for parents to have their own support system. Children should not become their parents’ confidantes. Parents should seek professional support for them and their children if needed.”

Join the project; visit where you can get the book at a discounted price if you pre-order during the campaign.

This article first appeared in Pink Magazine.

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